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The cable companies are putting the squeeze on Altitude channel – because they can – and it’s getting ugly




In one corner, we have a network owned by a multi-billionaire, Stan Kroenke, who owns seemingly just about everything in Denver and many surrounding areas. In the other corner, we have three cable TV conglomerates whose monthly bills now closely approximate your car payment and seemingly get a little higher all the time.

David vs. Goliath, this is not.

If you havent heard, Avalanche fan, what’s been going on the last few days, here’s a summary: The “carriage” contracts between Altitude TV and Denver and surrounding’s big three cable providers – DISH Network, Comcast/Xfinity and DirecTV – are expiring and the two sides are, let’s just say, not anywhere close to an agreement to re-up with each other.

In the case of DISH, the contract has already expired and Altitude is NO LONGER AVAILABLE right now. At midnight Saturday, Altitude will vanish from both Comcast and DirecTV if there is no new agreement. This means, of course, that if you have your cable provided by one of these three, and you love to watch the Altitude channel for its programming – which, of course, includes Avalanche and Nuggets games, among other sports – you are…out of luck.

You, the customer, are shut out until they come to an agreement. There has been some VERY strong language used by the two sides toward each other – highly unusual language for the corporate world.

Here’s what Altitude has said about the Big Three:

“For the past 15 years, Altitude Sports has been the proud home network of your Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Colorado Mammoth and University of Denver, televising live games, while providing unprecedented behind the scenes coverage of the teams throughout the community. Although Denver-based DISH Network has carried Altitude since the inception of Altitude on September 4, 2004, at midnight on Wednesday, DISH Network dropped Altitude so that none of DISH’s subscribers are able to watch Altitude programming. Comcast and DIRECTV are threatening to do the same this coming Saturday, after fifteen continuous years of carriage of Altitude. These actions by DISH, Comcast and DIRECTV are directly related to contract negotiations with Altitude, and while Altitude has always negotiated with them in good faith and continues to negotiate in good faith, these Big Three media conglomerates want to play by their own rules and are making unrealistic demands on Altitude. Their actions will affect hundreds of thousands of regional sports fans and negatively impact hundreds of local businesses that continue to support their home teams.

Why are these three cable and satellite giants coming together now after fifteen years to block viewers from watching their favorite local teams? In fact, Comcast and DIRECTV, which also own and operate their own regional sports networks that carry their local sports teams, have entered into agreements with regional sports networks throughout the United States, and even here in our very own region, on terms and conditions very similar to those that Altitude has been negotiating for.

The Big Three’s hardball tactics are dumbfounding and disrespectful to their sports-loving customers. Altitude has been an exemplary partner since its launch in 2004, producing and airing thousands of Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Colorado Mammoth and DU games. Altitude also telecasts invaluable and award-winning programming otherwise unavailable for colleges and high schools in our 10-state territory. Now the Big Three want to tune out their viewers and turn off our beloved teams and all other Altitude programming. This makes no sense.”

Here is what Comcast said in response:

“We want to reach an agreement with Altitude, but it must be at a reasonable price for our customers,” Comcast said in a statement. “Altitude has demanded significant annual price increases for the same content for years, which has driven up costs for all of our customers in Colorado and Utah, even though most of them do not watch the channel. Over the past year, more than 95% of Altitude subscribers watched less than the equivalent of a game per week. The price increase Altitude is again demanding is unacceptable given the network’s low viewership. We have submitted a proposal to Altitude that we believe reflects the value of its programming and are hopeful Altitude will accept it so we can continue to carry the network for those customers who want to watch it.”

The network’s “low viewership” – ouch. Fire in the hole there.

Personally, this is where Comcast lost me a bit. First of all, the statement says that “95% of Altitude subscribers watched less than the equivalent of a game per week.” Um, Comcast, there are no “subscribers” for Altitude, per se. Altitude is one channel among hundreds that customers get as part of their larger, bundled channel package. (Full disclosure: I’m a Comcast subscriber).

So, that’s bad wording right there. Second, Altitude “subscribers” watched less than the equivalent of a game per week? So, what is that – two hours, three hours? That actually sounds like a fair amount of viewing of one channel per week.

Third, what are the numbers on “low viewership?” Now, let’s be honest: I and probably the majority of you out there don’t watch the Altitude channel much unless the Avs are on. As I sit here and type, the current offering on Altitude right now is a show called “USGolf TV”, and this particular episode is about the golfing scene in…New England. Now, hey, as a native of New England, I actually might want to see a bit of this, just so I can see some of the old homestead maybe. But, uh, yeah, no, that otherwise wouldn’t be on my agenda for TV viewing. Nor would their 2 p.m. scheduled program for today: “Horse Racing: Saratoga Live.”

But that’s with any channel. Of course there’s gonna be stuff during the day we have no interest in seeing. That applies to HBO to ESPN to MTV to the History Channel and so on. But there is stuff we’ll occasionally want to see on those channels, and Altitude is no different. We like the channel because that’s where we can see the Avs.

Unless Comcast can better quantify what “low viewership” means, that sounds like a cheap shot at a channel that is always going to be viewed as “niche” programming. Ratings are always going to fluctuate, based on how good/bad a team is.

Fourth, Comcast wants me to believe they’re looking out for me, as the customer, at a “reasonable price” with this thing? OK, stop guys. Give me a break on that one. I think Comcast’s service has really gotten better in the last couple years, and they put out a much better, easier-to-use product. I used to play the cable switching game all the time, going with one teaser rate for one year with Comcast, then canceling and going with DirecTV’s teaser for the following year, and so on. But I stopped, partially because Comcast has upped their game so much. But it ain’t cheap. My cable bill currently is $190 a month (cable, internet, home security and one premium channel – Showtime).

So, give me a break on this whole taking a stand against Altitude thing because you’re looking out for my wallet. You know what Comcast’s profit was in 2018? According to Forbes, $11 billion. That’s, billion with a B. My initial rate with Comcast was $109 a month for all three two years ago. Now it’s 81 MORE DOLLARS a month.

But Comcast, DISH and DirecTV are ALL threatening to dump Altitude at the same time. It’s not just one cable company, it’s three. (Altitude, as we mentioned, has already gone dark on DISH). Optically, that doesn’t look great for Altitude right now. Why would ALL THREE companies seem to have no hesitancy dumping Altitude right now? If I’m DirecTV and I’m OK with Altitude’s terms, but I know my two big rivals aren’t, I’m jumping for joy right now. I immediately start an ad campaign saying, “Hey Avalanche and Nuggets fans, Comcast and DISH just made it impossible for you to see their games, but not here at DirecTV! Join now!” Same would apply to either of the other two cable companies.

But they’re not doing that. All three are ready to dump Altitude. Something doesn’t add up there, as to why.

We don’t know the dollar amount difference in terms right now between the parties, but The Denver Post’s Mike Singer did a nice story on the situation yesterday in which he reported an Altitude exec, Jim Martin, saying, “Comcast made us a proposal which they refuse to budge off of, which proposed 60 percent plus cuts in our rates plus taking us to a sports tier as opposed to a basic package, so we would have 60 percent less per subscriber and we’d have only 15-20 percent of the subscribers that we have now. The reality of professional sports these days is you have to have broad-based distribution or it’s not a viable situation.”

Singer reported that Altitude is seeking only mild rate increases, between six and eight percent over a new multi-year contract, with a freeze on the current rate for the first year of the deal. That doesn’t seem outrageous at all to me, especially with the Avs and Nuggets likely to be good teams the next few years, which should theoretically increase their ratings. And if Comcast really wants Altitude to take 60 percent less than they’re getting now? That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? I mean, 60 percent?

But the cable companies think they’re in survival mode right now. They know they’re in a world where people are cutting the cord for streaming services, and they’re looking at any way to either save money or make new money. They control the distribution of the channels that can’t or won’t do their own streaming service.

And that’s where Altitude is kind of stuck. They need the cable companies more than the cable companies need them. A lot of you out there – and I’ve said the same thing at times – have said, “If Altitude would just start their own streaming service, for Avs/Nuggets/whatever games, I’d cut the cable cord in a heartbeat. Do it Altitude!”

But as Martin noted in Singer’s story, there just wouldn’t be enough of you out there to make the numbers financially viable on that. We may think a few thousand of us shelling out $5.95 a month so so for Altitude streaming is a lot, and maybe it is for a mom and pop company, but there are serious costs in broadcasting games, on any platform. The number of streamers just wouldn’t add up enough to pay all the associated costs with broadcasting the games and paying the league for licensing and all kind of other stuff.

So, streaming isn’t an option right now. Alas, Altitude is stuck. They need the cable companies, to mass distribute their product. The cable companies have all the leverage, and right now they are using it. Surely, Stan Kroenke can appreciate that. It’s not personal, it’s business. He’s done a few hardball deals in his time too (hello St. Louis Rams fans).

Personally, I like Stan Kroenke (and Josh) and I think they’ve been very good owners of the Avs. They’ve always tried to field the best teams possible, in my opinion, and haven’t been stingy with spending on players. Yeah, the payroll was low for a couple years a few years back, but the team was in rebuilding mode and they were upfront about that.

Stan Kroenke owns his own channel – Altitude, and all the employees who work there – but he doesn’t own a cable company to distribute that channel.

So, unless he buys his own cable company, he doesn’t have the leverage to dictate the terms to the existing cable companies. Altitude isn’t part of a national-regional family of channels either, like many current NHL teams have with Fox Sports/NBC Regional/AT&T. Altitude is kind of on an island by itself. If Kroenke can’t make any deal with the big three cable companies in Denver, his only other alternative would seemingly be to sell Altitude to someone like one of the aforementioned in this paragraph. But Kroenke likes to have 100 percent equity ownership in his businesses. One of the only things he doesn’t have 100 percent equity in is broadcast cable TV.

And so, here we are.

Some of you have theorized, “OK, if there is no more Altitude, I can at least still buy the NHL Center Ice package and see all Avs games from the other team’s broadcasters, right?” I don’t know for sure on that yet, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure those “other team” broadcasts would still be subject to local blackouts on Center Ice.

I always think these things will work out in the end. I think we’re all cynical enough to believe that much of this is posturing at the moment, and that some kind of deal will be reached.

But those have been some pretty strong, unusual comments publicly toward each other. Altitude’s first Avs broadcast isn’t slated to be until opening night, so there’s still more than a month before Avs fans have to truly freak out about this. But what if you’re such a hardcore Avs fan that you really love the rest of Altitude’s programming, like their “360” show, or their panel shows where they sometimes talk Avs, or whatever else they offer? If you’re a DISH subscriber, you’re already missing out on that.

And come midnight Saturday, you’re SOL too if you pay Comcast and DirecTV.

Here is the link to a site Altitude has started – Don’t Block My Altitude.

I welcome your thoughts on this issue:

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